Magnificent ‘Encounters’ of modern and contemporary art | Sunday Observer
MMCA Sri Lanka will launch its second exhibition this month

Magnificent ‘Encounters’ of modern and contemporary art

6 February, 2022

The second exhibition of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka (MMCA Sri Lanka) titled ‘Encounters’ will be held from February 11 to August 28, at the museum’s new venue at Crescat Boulevard. Entrance to the museum and participation at all events in its public program is free.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer, art historian and the curator of MMCA Sri Lanka, Sharmini Pereira talks about their latest artistic rendezvous ‘Encounters’ and the arduous process of curation and exciting findings.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: Modern, contemporary. Contemporary, modern. These terms are often used interchangeably. Is there actually any difference between them? If so, how would you define it?

A: These two terms are pretty much contested and complex. As I believe we should think about these two terms as historical and that they are referring to different periods in time. The time when the term ‘modern’ actually came about was to refer to what was contemporary at that time. Subsequently, it became a term to describe that period and what’s going on now is not modern but contemporary.

Sharmini Pereira

We see these terms being used in museums, we see the problems with them and we also wanted to include them because these are the terms that have been used and are being used and continue to be used and still it’s very contagious and helpful because they distinguish what has been going on around the world.

We have been associated with art or visual culture in Sri Lanka since pre-modern times. We have nearly 120 museums. None of them focused on modern or contemporary. All their collections focus on art effects more or less pre-Independence.

So internationally, the term ‘modern’ also began to be used around the 1930s or 1940s. It’s the beginning of describing what was going on then, or what was contemporary then. So after the 1960s' we don’t use the word ‘modern’. Therefore, we use the word ‘modern’ to describe the art of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Modern and contemporary follow one another, where modern comes first and then contemporary. But there was a time when the term ‘modern’ was simply referring to what's going on now, that is ‘contemporary’. So that's why it’s quite confusing.

Q: 43 Group marks the exceptional rise of the Sri Lankan modernist art movement. As an art historian can you elaborate how 43 Group’s use of art marked localisation of the European modernist trend rather than a replica of it?

A: In Sri Lanka, we should try and help the public to think about art in terms of different historical periods. To understand what was happening up to Independence, and how the country thought about its own identity. That might be a way to understand the work of the ‘43 Group’. Because their work departed from what was then current or contemporary and during that time the style of paintings which was called Victorian realism and those paintings were created exactly how you saw things with your naked eyes.

That style of painting was adopted from what the British were doing way before that. However, that was started here in the 1930s and the 1940s. However, the 43 Group thought that pictorial language did not say anything about us as a country nor as a painting language, but it was something that we want to use to depict where we are as a country.

They came together in 1943 and that was the decade that led up to Independence. And they began to explore to find a new pictorial language. They looked at what was already going on in Europe and they saw the creation of art is made by mainly French artists such as Picasso, Braque and began to explore as they had traveled to those countries often.

The 43 Group consisted of a group of people who were quite privileged. Not all of them, but most of them could afford to travel. So they often travelled in Europe and had good contacts. They brought back magazines and they often shared them among them and that gave them the opportunity to think about what was going on here based on their visual language. So we had a dramatic change in the way painting was primarily done. That gave rise I suppose to our modern artists or movement of modernism in Sri Lanka. However, it was not something that was borrowed from Europe, but it came in as a reaction to what was happening here which was the realistic style of paintings. That painting style also did come from Europe mainly, and it came in under the British and they established that as the academic idea of how to paint.

The 43 Group those who had formal education in the painting would have also been taught to paint like that. So they had to unlearn that to be able to embrace something flatter, not realistic. For example, George Keyt, for him to start painting in this flat style, such as drawing a nose in one line, whereas before he probably would have had a model and now he is done away with that and decided to describe it in one line, surely remarkable and very modern. However, the reception of modern art everywhere in the world is quite debatable as some argue that this is child art.

Q: When you say modern and contemporary art it encompasses many different things. It could refer to paintings, sculptures, architecture, design, films, photography, drama, and these days to performance and media art. It’s mainly because the idea of modernity does not belong to a particular subject or media. It’s an open-ended proposition. Therefore, curation has a bigger role to play. Can you explain the process of curation?

Senaka Senanayake (Sri Lankan, 1951)  Lotus Night Bloom

A: The MMCA is very keen and careful about individual artworks, not merely about the artist when putting up exhibitions. For example, when you say George Keyt it is indisputably a household name. There are certain people that could name an artwork by him. That’s where the curator's role comes in. It’s our role to help to create a greater awareness not only about the artist but about his individual works and also to understand his constant development as an artist. That’s the kind of knowledge we get as art historians and we are here to share that knowledge that is also the role of a museum rather than creating mere non-specific exhibitions.

Our process of curation is very often based on narration, however, not all curating is based on narratives. A narrative means the order in which you are hoping the audience will follow. However, we have no control over it as we cannot expect the audience to strictly follow the order. Anyway, narrative-driven exhibitions are rare in Sri Lanka. Most of the time gallery works depend on their commercial context. Therefore, the first work that you might see by entering a gallery would be the work everybody knows.

Perhaps it might be the oldest work of the artist. I don’t work in the commercial sector; I think when they curate and put together exhibitions there would be a form of curation probably founded or balanced in very different criteria. For us, it’s quite different. We are telling some kind of a story. If we are doing a retrospective of an artist we might decide to do it in chronological order by starting from his/her early works. So to have a curatorial script based on artworks is quite important for us. In Sri Lanka, so many artworks and information are in private collections. Therefore, an immense amount of research is involved in the process. The amount of information that we can find in deep research will decide the nature of the exhibition and the curation.

Q: The MMCA’s ongoing exhibition ‘Encounters’ is structured as a sequence of changing displays that bring together six encounters between artworks from the 1950s and the present. Can you elaborate on the narration of ‘Encounters’?

A: This is our second exhibition and it ‘encounters’ between works of art created between the 1950s and the present by various artists such as George Keyt, Pradeep Thalawatta, Nelun Harasgama, Senaka Senanayake, Abdul Halik Azeez, and Janani Cooray. The artworks and ephemera that have been showcased as part of ‘Encounters’ revolves around, and respond to, specially chosen paintings from the John Keells and George Keyt Foundation Collections. This exhibition provides the public with a rare opportunity to view several artworks from two of the country’s most important collections of art.

The past two years have not been ideal for exhibitions around the world, with the unexpected travel restrictions and lockdowns. So, we are really pleased that we can begin this year with a newly curated exhibition which includes 46 artworks by approximately 18 artists along with historically important magazines and photographs.

The exhibition has been curated as a series of changing six displays, where five displays are on view for approximately two months and one display will remain on view for the entire six months. We encourage visitors to return to the exhibition for each display changeover as each ‘encounter’ will be different from the previous one.

The starting point of this exhibition was two private collections; i.e. John Keells Art Collection and George Keyt Foundation’s collection. John Keells art collection is on the course of their company’s history and has been commissioned mainly for their hotels. Directors such as Ajith Gunawardena and Ken Balendra had a much greater hand in thinking about how art can benefit the company. They brought across our second collection, as much of the artworks of the George Keyt Foundation Collection were in the UK. Through Ajith’s leadership, John Keells found funds to bring down that collection back in Sri Lanka.

So based on these two collections we tried to do something different. We studied the entire two collections and picked six artworks and those six became the starting point. Following a rigorous curation process, what we are trying to do in this particular display is to look at the evolvement of the Chinese element in our country and how it has been becoming stronger and stronger and there are a number of exhibits exploring this socio-political element. Likewise, we have six independent displays with six different narratives encompassing 46 artworks of 18 artists that will rotate every two months within the next seven months.

‘Encounters’ is generously supported by the European Union, Foundation for Arts Initiatives, John Keells Foundation, and Asian Hotels and Properties PLC. The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka is a cultural initiative focused on building a museum of modern and contemporary art for the country and fostering learning and engagement for as wide a public as possible. Alongside its curated exhibitions and education programs, the museum is the first publicly accessible trilingual venue of its kind in Sri Lanka.

Q: In your curation process of ‘Encounters’ you definitely should have encountered many contemporary artists who have been working in the same narration. How do you choose what art to include or exclude?

A: It is a long process and we definitely had time constraints that led us to make decisions. Considering the main six modern artworks that we have chosen, and then we started to research the backgrounds of each of the artworks. Through our research the findings were mesmerising and you can go on and on and on. However, it’s important to have an understanding of the audience and how they are going to understand the story that we are going to tell them through our narration based on the strenuous process of research.

Either the story has to be simpler or when you are telling the story, do you have all the right to say all the components and findings or can you eliminate what you don’t like and how do you fill the gap, these are crucial questions that we have to deal with in the process. In our exhibitions, we use didactics like texts that help to conceptualize everything and get the background information. But certainly not to be seen as a substitute for an artwork. Other than didactics we have educators who have the knowledge to talk about artwork and are able to conduct tours in the gallery. So, the findings of the research and the narration that we are building most of the time will decide what to include and exclude in the process.

Q: What are the ways to think about the value of an artwork?

A: The value of an artwork comes from simply three areas. One is the market value, the second is the condition of the artwork and the third area is its art-historical value. If it is an artwork that is in a huge exhibition the value of that art historically is high. When that particular artwork comes out of that exhibition and then wants to be represented in another exhibition by invitation, if the time from one exhibition to another is long and the process is complicated and the condition of the artwork is deteriorating, it will affect the artwork’s value adversely. The market at the auctions are mostly looking at the work of an artist that has got a really good exhibition history. Also, the quality of the artwork is important.

Q: What advice do you have to give to an ordinary art visitor to look at a painting to appreciate it most?

A: You cannot expect people to know everything about works that have been displayed in museums. Therefore, it’s important to present background information through didactics. The first sentence of didactics has to point to the artwork; it has to describe something in the artwork. It should be like a triangle and the bottom of it can be expanded by explaining its wider context. That will give any ordinary art lover an insight to grasp the idea of an artwork.


Sharmini Pereira is a professionally qualified art historian with a 27- year track record of curatorial work in modern and contemporary art specializing in the South Asian region. She was born in 1970 and lives and works in Sri Lanka. She has written and published extensively on contemporary Asian art and has contributed to numerous international panel discussions and debates as an invited speaker. Her writings have appeared in Mousse Magazine, Guggenheim online, Art Asia Pacific, Groundviews, Imprint magazine, and several books on contemporary South Asian art.